If this is a new chapter of English rugby – as Maro Itoje told us more than once – then the first page of it was less notable for what it said, more so for what it did not. Steve Borthwick’s first team announcement as England head coach and not a single mention of the World Cup, now just seven months away, was uttered. That “finishers” has been done away with – Borthwick preferring the more prosaic “replacements” – only underlined how the Eddie Jones era has been consigned to history.
Borthwick’s team selection is eye-catching in so far as Manu Tuilagi has been dropped – Joe Marchant has been preferred – Ben Curry and Ollie Hassell-Collins have been handed first starts and first caps respectively and most significantly, Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell continue as the 10-12 axis. Borthwick may be wielding a new broom but just like his predecessor, that is a circle he has to square.
Tuilagi’s demotion is noteworthy, because for more than a decade, if he has been fit he has played. That hasn’t been the case nearly as often as he and his coaches would have liked but Borthwick has grasped the nettle by dropping him. He largely deflected when asked why, insisting the door was still open, but Tuilagi, now 31, has been below par this season and Borthwick was clear that Marchant’s selection was a decision based on form.
You sense Nick Evans had a say, too, because with Smith at fly-half, Marchant at outside-centre and Alex Dombrandt at No 8, there is a Harlequins flavour to England’s attack. Equally, it was interesting to hear Borthwick suggest that Farrell’s views on the makeup of the midfield had been taken into account. There was a growing suspicion that Farrell may revert to fly-half, where he has not started for England since the dismal 2021 defeat by Scotland, but Borthwick revealed that Farrell has told him he likes to share the playmaking duties. “Owen has played really well in the 12 shirt for many years, and some of England’s best performances have been with Owen in the 12 shirt,” said Borthwick. “He has talked to me in the past about how he enjoys playing with other ball players.”
Tuilagi’s absence, of course, leaves England light on ball-carrying heft. We are unlikely to see Ellis Genge deployed at full-back – as he effectively was in Paris last March – but he can expect to see plenty of the ball, as can Kyle Sinckler and Ollie Hassell-Collins. More tellingly, however we can expect to see players with a point to prove. Itoje and the other six surviving members of the side who lost to South Africa in November have considerable motivation to ensure there are no boos echoing around Twickenham on Saturday.
“England fans are going to see a re-energised team, a team that’s willing to work hard, stay together in the tough moments,” said Itoje. “We have an incredible amount of passion and pride representing the rose. It means a lot to our families individually and to the country as well. We’re fully aware that in recent times, especially in the autumn, it wasn’t up the standard we would expect of ourselves. Steve has told us we need to have pride in what we do and make the people in the stands proud. The worst thing you can have in life is regret. We have an opportunity to start new, start fresh and write a new chapter in English rugby.”
All the right noises, as you’d expect, but England need to find a way to light the fire among the Twickenham faithful after five defeats in 12 matches last year and a dreadful recent record against Scotland. Borthwick believes that can come from players such as Curry, Max Malins and Marchant – players desperate to show they belong at this level after falling out of favour with Jones. “You see these players are just so desperate to be in the England shirt,” he said. “The players have got an opportunity, and that’s what they wanted, is an opportunity, and now they have got to take that.”
A theory not without its merits and there is talent littered among this England team. Players in form for their clubs, too, and there was always going to be a yeomen feel to a side selected by Borthwick.
Whether that will cut it at the World Cup, in the white heat of the knockout stages is another matter but in this new chapter, it has been made clear that can wait for another day. And as for finishers, “there will be the starting team and the replacements,” said Borthwick. “I don’t get too obsessed with things that I don’t think add value to the side.”